NATO warns Georgia ‘foreign agents’ bill is ‘step in wrong direction’

Protests set to continue as Western nations urge Georgian authorities against adopting ‘Kremlin-style’ measure.

NATO has warned Georgia that its approval of new contentious legislation branding overseas-funded NGOs as “foreign agents” was a “step in the wrong direction”.

It was also a move “away from European and Euro-Atlantic integration”, the military alliance that Georgia aspires to one day join said on Wednesday, a day after the United States warned that the “Kremlin-style” law would force it to reassess ties with the country.

Tens of thousands of protesters, who have been demonstrating in the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, for weeks, are expected to rally against the bill outside parliament later on Wednesday.

“We urge Georgia to change course and respect the right to peaceful protest,” said NATO spokeswoman Farah Dakhlallah.

Protesters block a street during a rally against the controversial ‘foreign influence’ bill in Tbilisi [File: Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP]

The European Union urged Georgia to withdraw the legislation, which it said would set back the country’s ambitions to join the 27-nation bloc.

“The adoption of this law negatively impacts Georgia’s progress on the EU path,” said a statement from EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi.

“The choice on the way forward is in Georgia’s hands. We urge the Georgian authorities to withdraw the law,” they said.

US Assistant Secretary of State James O’Brien, who visited Tbilisi on Tuesday, said Washington could impose financial and travel restrictions unless the bill underwent change or if security forces forcibly broke up protests as has occurred in recent weeks.

‘Russian law’

The law requires media and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and other nonprofit groups to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad.

It has been dubbed “the Russian law” by opponents, who compare it with legislation used by the Kremlin for the past decade to crack down on its opponents.

The ruling Georgian Dream party says it is needed to promote transparency, combat “pseudo-liberal values” promoted by foreigners and preserve the country’s sovereignty.

A woman holds a Georgian national and an EU flags in front of riot police blocking a street
A woman holds Georgian national and EU flags in front of riot police blocking a street in Tbilisi [File: Zurab Tsertsvadze/AP]

President Salome Zourabichvili, who is increasingly at odds with the governing party, has promised to veto the bill, but Georgian Dream has a majority sufficient to override it. Zourabichvili has 14 days to act.

On Tuesday, she met with the foreign ministers of Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Iceland who visited Tbilisi in connection with the controversial legislation.

“We talked about what the next steps are. I very clearly explained to the representatives of friendly countries that with my veto, I would under no circumstances enter into some fake, artificial, deceitful negotiations. No and never!” she said after the meeting.

“I will not betray the spirit that is in this country today and needs to open a path. I will be the opener of this path. This message will be delivered by our friends everywhere so that no one thinks that you can use the President of Georgia to save the image of this government,” Zourabichvili said.

“Today, not this issue is on the agenda, Georgia’s survival is on the agenda,” she added.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, said the Georgian government was turning its back on the European direction and so it was important to show support for Georgia’s pro-Western society and its president.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies